Each morning by 5 a.m., Donna Bryan is fully caffeinated and perched in front of her laptop. Cigarette in hand, the 52-year-old former hospice nurse logs on to Twitter, where she begins furiously recirculating news stories about gun safety. After catching up on email — where she sometimes encounters veiled death threats — Bryan seeds the roughly 400 Facebook groups she’s joined with the online petition that has become her calling card. She repeats the routine on Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+, and LinkedIn.
“It’s become mechanical now,” says Bryan, who lives in New Port Richey, Florida, a sleepy waterside community 35 miles northwest of Tampa. “It’s like a job. Only you don’t get a salary.”
A dogged social media campaign would seem more apt for a millennial activist than a wheelchair-bound grandmother battling congestive heart failure. But every keystroke serves Bryan’s mission: to imprison the man who unintentionally shot her pregnant daughter while twirling a loaded .22-caliber revolver around his finger like a gunslinger in his central Florida home nearly two years ago.
On the evening of July 26, 2014, 25-year-old Katherine Hoover and her husband went to a home in Brooksville, Florida, to visit a friend, William DeHayes, who lived with his then-fiancée. While demonstrating the gun trick, which he says he learned on YouTube, DeHayes, now 37, shot Hoover in the head. She was five months pregnant with a boy, whom she had already named Rehlin. Both died.
Hoover’s 6-year-old son, from a different relationship, went to live with Bryan.
DeHayes told police he thought the gun was unloaded, and that the shooting was unintentional. He wasn’t arrested or charged in the incident, a decision that Bryan finds impossible to accept.
“The detective came to the hospital and told us it was an accident,” Bryan says. “My daughter wasn’t even dead yet. I said, ‘I don’t give a flying F, I want him locked up.’”
DeHayes was never arrested, and Hernando County prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges. A December 2014 memo from Peter Magrino, an assistant state attorney from the region that includes Hernando County, explained the reasoning. The legal test, Magrino wrote, is whether DeHayes’s actions amounted to “criminal or culpable neglect or negligence.” In order to charge him with manslaughter, he would have needed to display “reckless disregard for human life,” the memo says.
Two years later, on March 17, DeHayes was arrested after firing his 12-gauge shotgun into the air above his mobile home. He faces a misdemeanor count of discharging a firearm in public.
Seeing DeHayes in the news for mishandling another gun “was a shock,” Bryan tells The Trace. “He’s going to kill somebody else.”
There is no national uniform standard for prosecutors to follow when deciding whether to charge someone for an unintentional shooting that results in death. Many opt not to, offering some version of the rationale that the shooter has “suffered enough.”
Brad King, the chief prosecutor in Hernando County, later wrote Bryan to elaborate on the decision to not charge DeHayes with a crime. “An accidental discharge of a firearm causing death, even if the result of gross negligence, cannot be prosecuted criminally,” he wrote. “Just as it is my duty to prosecute those who violate the law, it is equally my duty to refrain from prosecuting those whose conduct, no matter how outrageous, does not constitute a crime. This is such a case.”
King is the same prosecutor who declined to charge a sheriff’s deputy whose claim that his girlfriend killed herself with his service revolver was contradicted by evidence. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Elsewhere in Florida, prosecutors have come to the opposite conclusions in other unintentional shooting cases. Last May in Panama City, 62-year-old Charles Edward Shisler pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 14 years in prison for drunkenly picking up his loaded 9mm handgun with his finger on the trigger. The gun discharged, firing a bullet into his next-door neighbor’s backyard, where it killed 33-year-old Steven Justin Ayers. In Dade County last August, 14-year-old Malcolm Antonio Lumpkin was charged with manslaughter after he fatally shot his 15-year-old friend in the chest while unloading a handgun.
In perhaps the closest parallel, shortly after Hoover’s death, 50-year-old Eric Stayton was charged with manslaughter for a nearly identical “gunslinging” stunt that killed his 39-year-old sister at her birthday party in Tallahassee. The gun hit the ground and discharged. Last December, Stayon pled guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
I don’t see anybody in any context in all of time who said it was a good idea to play with a loaded gun.”
Jack Campbell, the Tallahassee prosecutor who handled the Stayton case, declined to comment on the decision not to charge DeHayes for Hoover’s death. “It’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback,” he says. To bring criminal manslaughter charges in unintentional shooting cases, he tells The Trace, the culpable negligence standard must apply.
With the Stayton case, he identified two forms of negligence: Recklessly handling a loaded gun, and doing so while drinking. “I don’t see anybody in any context in all of time who said it was a good idea to play with a loaded gun,” he says. “Or while intoxicated. You put them both together and it’s not two miles over the speed limit — it’s, like, 50.”
In an interrogation two days after Hoover’s death, DeHayes told officers that he had taken two drugs, Lortab and Soma, to treat pain stemming from a severe back injury, along with Methadone, which is used to treat symptoms of opioid addiction. (That injury, he says, is what prompted him to take up gunslinging in the first place: “You ever watch the quick draw competitions on YouTube? I’ve been practicing that. I figure I’m disabled now, I need to do something with my life,” he says, according to an edited videotape of the interrogation.)
Neither Hoover’s husband, DeHayes’s fiancée, or her three children — who witnessed the shooting and its bloody aftermath — said he appeared intoxicated while showing off his trick that night.
“I haven’t slept in three days trying to figure how the hell it went off,” DeHayes told the interrogating officer.
Presciently, he added, “I mean, them damn guns — the shotgun goes off when it wants to. I almost blew my own head off twice.”
DeHayes could not be reached for comment.
Grief has colored nearly every interaction Bryan has had since then — with her husband, her children, her community, and the local news reporters who cover Florida’s Gulf Coast. “My husband will tell you I’m obsessed,” she says. She has lobbied dozens of state officials, from the governor to her local representatives, urging that prosecutors reconsider their decision not to charge DeHayes in the death of her daughter.
Her Change.org petition is none-too-subtly-titled: “State Attorney Brad King Gives Free Pass To Baby Killer.”
King suggested in a letter to Bryan that Hoover’s death “might warrant civil action.” But it’s justice, as she defines it — and not recompense — that is her goal. “They all say, ‘file a wrongful death suit,’” says Bryan, who along with her 58-year-old husband is raising their grandson on their meager disability income. “We don’t want to see a dime. What we want is to see [DeHayes] prosecuted. I would rather be poor than collect money for someone killing my daughter and grandson.”
Seven months after Hoover’s untimely death, DeHayes told The Daily Beast that he didn’t need to go to jail to understand how his actions have hurt people. “I’ve learned a lesson,” he said, adding, “I will not allow any type of gun — even a BB gun — in my house anymore.”
It’s a vow he appears to have broken.
In the most recent shooting incident, several of DeHayes’s neighbors in Dade City called the police after he opened fire in his front yard. According to a police report obtained by The Trace, DeHayes told a responding officer that he was showing his girlfriend’s 16-year-old daughter how to shoot. “I asked William where the projectiles would go that he was firing up into the air,” the officer wrote, “and he stated he knew they would come straight down, but showed no signs of concern for his neighbors or anyone else in the area.” DeHayes said he had been drinking “beer and Crown Royal straight from the bottle” since noon.
Bryan doesn’t understand how DeHayes could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for firing his 12-gauge shotgun into the air, but evade charges when one of his bullets hits a human target.
“I’ve been in a fog for a long time,” she says, “but I’m waking up, and I’m getting angry. Especially now that he’s out there shooting guns. He didn’t learn a damn thing.”